Category Archive 'Political Theory'
30 Oct 2008

The Tyranny of Liberalism

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An excerpt from James Kalb’s The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command:

The incremental style of liberalism obscures the radicalism of what it eventually demands and enables it always to present itself as moderate. What is called progress—in effect, movement to the left—is thought normal in present-day society, so to stand in its way, let alone to try to reverse accepted changes, is thought radical and divisive. We have come to accept that what was inconceivable last week is mainstream today and altogether basic tomorrow. The result is that the past is increasingly discredited, deviancy is defined up or down, and it becomes incredible that, for instance, until 1969 high school gun-club members took their guns to school on New York City subways, and that in 1944 there were only forty-four homicides by gunshot in the entire city. …

In spite of serious chronic problems that no one knows how to attack—extraordinarily low natality, rising costs of social-welfare programs, growing immigrant populations that do not assimilate—basic change seems unthinkable. No matter how pressing the problem, only analyses and solutions compatible with liberal positions are allowed in the public square. Almost all serious discussion is carried on through academic and other institutions that are fully integrated with the ruling order, and in any case antidiscrimination rules make wholehearted subscription to principles such as inclusiveness the only way to avoid legal and public relations problems that would make institutional life impossible. Genuine political discussion disappears. What pass as battles between liberals and conservatives are almost always disputes between different stages or tendencies within liberalism itself.

So dominant is liberalism that it becomes invisible. Judges feel free to read it into the law without historical or textual warrant because it seems so obviously right. To oppose it in any basic way is to act incomprehensibly, in a way explicable, it is thought, only by reference to irrationality, ignorance, or evil. The whole of the nonliberal past is comprehensively blackened. Traditional ways are presented as the simple negation of unquestionable goods liberalism favors. Obvious declines in civility, morality, and cultural achievement are ignored, denied, or redefined as advances. Violence is said to be the fault of the persistence of sex roles, war of religion, theft of social inequality, suicide of stereotyping. Destruction of sex and historical community as ordering principles—and thus of settled family arrangements and cultural forms—is presented as a supremely desirable goal. The clear connection among the decline of traditional habits, standards, and social ties; the disintegration of institutions like the family; and other forms of personal and social disorder is ignored or treated as beside the point.

Many people find something deeply oppressive about the resulting situation, but no one really knows what to say about it. Some complain about those general restrictions, like political correctness, which make honest and productive discussion of public affairs impossible. Others have more concrete and personal objections. Parents are alarmed by the indoctrination of their children. Many people complain about affirmative action, massive and uncontrolled immigration, and the abolition of the family as a distinct social institution publicly recognized as fundamental and prior to the state. Still others have the uneasy sense that the world to which they are attached and which defines who they are is being taken from them.

Nonetheless, these victims and their complaints get no respect and little media coverage. Their discontent remains inarticulate and obscure. People feel stifled, but cannot say just how. They make jokes or sarcastic comments, but when challenged have trouble explaining and defending themselves. The disappearance of common understandings that enable serious thought and action to be carried on by nonexperts and outside formal bureaucratic structures has made it hard even to think about the issues coherently. The result is a system of puzzled compliance. …

Attempts to challenge the liberal hegemony occasionally emerge but always fail. No challenge seems possible when all social authorities that might compete with bureaucracy, money, and expertise have been discredited, co-opted, or radically weakened. When populist complaints make their half-articulate way into public life they are recognized as dangerous to the established order, debunked as ignorant and hateful, and quickly diverted or suppressed. Proponents of the standards now current always have the last word. Freedom, equality, and neutral expertise are the basis of those standards, and when discussion is put on that ground it is difficult to argue for anything contrary. Rejection of equal freedom and of expertise is oppressive and ignorant by definition, so how could it possibly be justified?

At bottom, the problem with the standards that now govern public life is that they deny natural human tendencies and so require constant nagging interference in all aspects of life. They lead to a denatured society that does not work and does not feel like home. A standard liberal response to such objections is that our reactions are wrong: we should accept what we are told by those who know better. Expertise must rule. Social attitudes, habits, and connections, it is said, are not natural but constructed. They are continually revised and reenacted, their function and significance change with circumstances, and their meaning is a matter of interpretation and choice. It follows that habits and attitudes that seem solidly established and even natural cannot claim respect apart from their conformity with justice—which, if prejudice and question-begging are to be avoided, can only be defined as equality. All habits and attitudes must be conformed to egalitarianism and expertise. To object would be bigoted or ignorant.

But why should we trust those said to know better in such matters? Visions of an emancipated future are not necessarily wiser than nostalgia for a virtuous past. If all past societies have been sinks of oppression, as we are now told, it is not clear why our rulers are likely to change the situation. They understand the basic problems of life no better than the Sumerians did. They are technically more advanced, but technology is simply the application of means to ends. Tyrants, who know exactly what they want, can make good use of technique, and if clever they will pass their actions off as liberation.

Advanced liberalism fosters an inert and incompetent populace, a pervasive state, and commercial institutions responsible mainly to themselves. Alas, the state generally botches large-scale undertakings, commerce is proverbially self-interested, and formal expertise is more successful with small issues that can be studied in detail than with the big issues that make life what it is. Experts can treat appendicitis, but they cannot give us a reason to live. They can provide the factual content of instruction, but they cannot tell us what things are worth knowing. Why, then, treat their authority as absolute?

We should not accept the official, and “expert,” debunking of ordinary ways of thought. While popular habits and attitudes can be presented as a compound of prejudice and self-interest, so can official and expert views. Both expertise and the state are immensely powerful social institutions. They have their own interests, and there is no reason to trust them any more than drug companies or defense contractors in matters that affect their own status and position. Expertise is only a refinement of common sense, upon which it continues to depend for its sanity and usefulness. Thought depends on habits, attitudes, and understandings that we mostly pick up from other people and that cannot be verified except in parts. It cannot be purified of habit and preconception and still touch our world. Ordinary good sense must remain the final standard of judgment. Good sense, however, is the business not of experts and officials but of the public at large.

In fact, advanced liberal society is reproducing the error of socialism—the attempt to administer and radically alter things that are too complex to be known, grasped, and controlled—but on a far grander scale. The socialists tried to simplify and rationalize economics, while today’s liberals are trying to do the same with human relations generally. The latter involve much more subtle, complicated, and fundamental aspects of human life. Why expect the results to be better?

Read the whole thing.

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Hat tip to the Barrister.

08 Aug 2008

Email Humor of the Day

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Sharing: A lesson on human nature

I was talking to a friend of mine’s little girl the other day. I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up and she replied, “I want to be President!” Both of her parents are liberal democrats and were standing there. So then I asked her, “If you were President what would be the first thing you would do?”

She replied, “I’d give houses to all the homeless people.”

“Wow – what a worthy goal.” I told her, “You don’t have to wait until you’re President to do that. You can come over to my house and mow, pull weeds, and sweep my porch, and I’ll pay you $50. Then I’ll take you over to the grocery store where this homeless guy hangs out, and you can give him the $50 to use toward a new house.”

Since she is only 6, she thought that over for a few seconds. While her Mom glared at me, she looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Why doesn’t the homeless guy come over and do the work, and you can just pay him the $50?”

And I said, “Welcome to the Republican Party.”

Her folks still aren’t talking to me.

27 Jul 2008

Tilting at Hayek From the Left

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Friederich August Hayek

Jesse Larner, writing in Dissent, makes a valiant attempt to dismiss Hayek from a post-Soviet-collapse, “we’re only advocating voluntary collectivism,” progressive perspective. Hayek overlooked “spontaneous collectivism” you see.

Ilya Somin, at Volokh Conspiracy, offers an intelligent critique of Larner.

12 May 2008

Pirates Did Not Have Superdelegates

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Members of today’s rising generation (for some mysterious reason) love pirates. They turn pirate movies into hits, frequent pirate bars, throw pirate parties, and as the Boston Globe explains, they even look to pirates as a political model.

Marcus Rediker, the author of the pirate histories “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” and “Villains of All Nations,” sees pirate democracy less as a means for order than as a political statement, a pointed reaction to the working sailor’s life. When pirates roamed the seas, Rediker says, it was the law-abiding merchant ships that were run like miniature tyrannies. Captains held absolute power. Floggings were routine and often deadly. When pirates recruited sailors from the ships they pillaged, they opened a window to a different kind of society – far from the one the working-class sailors would otherwise find on land or sea. Rediker argues that pirate democracy “is not about human nature at all. It’s about the specific experience of sailors and the way that they wanted to imagine a better world.”

Piracy, says Rediker, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, was “a fascinating, almost utopian kind of experiment.” Indeed, he says, pirate democracy was purer than what was practiced in Athens: The Greeks didn’t give slaves the vote, but pirates offered the right to everyone, black or white. (It’s probably also safe to say that pirates didn’t have superdelegates.) Before each voyage, the crew elected a captain who could be deposed at any time, as well as a quartermaster whose main purpose was to make sure the captain didn’t have too much power. A written charter outlined ship rules, which tended to prohibit theft and violence aboard and set strict rules for the presence of women. (Contrary to popular myth, Leeson, says, pirates usually set limits on drinking. “A drunken pirate crew,” he points out, “would be less effective than a sober crew.”)

Pirates even conducted a version of a fair trial, Rediker says, when determining the fate of captured captains. If any pirate on board knew the man from his merchant ship days, he could testify about his treatment. A captain who turned out to be kind was sometimes spared his life. And in a precursor of our own democratic love of political satire, pirates wrote coarse, hilarious plays that mocked the upper classes’ criminal justice system.

14 Jan 2008

The Left’s Cult of Leadership

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J.R. Dunn discusses the incompatibility between a republican form of government and the left’s yearning for messianic leadership.

Republics are governed with limited powers by men making no pretensions to divine mandate or mystical empowerment. The left, on the other hand, is intrinsically an anti-republican party made up of political primitives, always awaiting the arrival of a god-king with transformative powers, capable of working miracles. With a single decree, the left’s magical leader can abolish economic scarcity, for example, giving free and abundant health care to everyone. Numberless liberal commentators have predicted that Obama by virtue of his racially mixed ancestry will miraculously cause America’s foreign adversaries to change into admirers.

When liberals refer to “leaders”, they’re not talking about the same thing as everybody else. One of the first acts of national leadership carried out by George Washington was to reject a crown. He was motivated by his personal sense of noblesse oblige, his awareness that he was setting an example of republican virtue. And the gesture was accepted in exactly that sense. Rather than imitate any of the rotten political systems of Europe, the U.S. would create its own, with a totally new interpretation of the role of the national leader.

A “leader” in the American sense is someone chosen to act as chief executive to handle a particular task for a particular period. He is a member of the team – the chief member, perhaps, but still a teammate. The fact that he is president is no different, except in scale, from someone running a charity drive, a company, or the army. The individual does the job, is suitably rewarded, and goes home. This system has its complexities (much of the structure of our government is in place to defeat the tendencies toward tyranny that afflicted every previous democracy on record without exception) and its drawbacks, but it has served this country well for over two centuries.

One of its major benefits is that it does away with much of the baggage surrounding the concept of “leader” as it’s understood in most of the world – the mystical, semi-divine nonsense that makes it so easy for “leader” to slide into “despot”. People will invade their neighbors, slaughter minorities, and march themselves right off the historical cliff on behalf of a duce, führer, or caudillo. They generally won’t for a chief executive.

It somehow comes as no surprise that American liberals have been trying to undo this innovation for much of the past century. To a convinced liberal, a leader is in no way limited to anything as mundane as running a country. A leader is a transcendent being, someone more than human, someone with a touch of the divine. Leaders don’t handle tasks, they lead movements, they embody the spirit of the age. They transfor. Leaders, to put it simply, are führers.

This explains why liberals are so attracted to tyrants on the international scene. Stalin is the classic historical example (for a dose of political hagiography at its most nauseating, see the film Mission to Moscow) though we’ve witnessed the same type of thing more recently involving Castro and Hugo Chavez. The search for this precise type of idol explains the visits to Chavez by the Sean Penns and Naomi Campbells. The fact that they’ve settled for Chavez, who on his best day reminds me of nothing more than a crazier Manuel Noriega, shows how pathological this urge can be.

The first American example of the new messianism was FDR. (Woodrow Wilson might have seen himself in the role, but certainly nobody else did.) It’s doubtful that Roosevelt, down-to-earth as he was, took it very seriously, much as he might have enjoyed it. He took advantage of what was useful in the role and dismissed the more outré aspects. Whatever his faults, FDR was no monster. American Augustus he might have been, but he left no trail of Neros or Caligulas to follow him.

Then we come to JFK, who set the image in concrete. Again, Kennedy did not seek the role – it was thrust on him, in large part retroactively, thanks to his assassination. But ever since, liberals have been searching for another example, for a JFK reborn to lead them to… well, lead them somewhere.

23 Dec 2007

Randians Oppose Carbon Credits and Subsidized Energy Alternatives

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The Alternative Energy Retailer quotes a source offering some trenchant criticism of the entire Alternative Energy movement.

Government incentive programs for adopting alternative energy are totally corrupt,” warns Alex Epstein, business analyst with the Ayn Rand Institute, based in Irvine, Calif. “They consist of expropriating the wealth of Americans, including energy companies that actually produce ample, affordable power, and using it to finance sources of energy that do not produce ample, affordable power – even, in some cases, after decades of subsidies. It makes no more sense than giving Americans liberal incentives to use horses and buggies instead of cars.”

For Epstein, the federal and state governments should play no role in advocating the American usage of alternative energy. He adds that using concerns over global warning to promote alternative energy is inappropriate.

“The purpose of government is the protection of the individual rights of all to their lives, liberty and property,” he says. “For government action to be justified in response to claims of global warming – the cause of today’s alternative energy infatuation – it must be scientifically demonstrable, in a court of law, that individuals’ burning of carbon fuels will do demonstrable harm to specific individuals through some sort of catastrophic change in weather. The state of evidence regarding global warming today is not even close to that. Even the highly politicized, highly speculative United Nations projections of a gradual, 8-degree-average warming over the next 100 years would be easily dealt with by industrialized people, who have sturdy houses, air conditioners, and sunscreen to cope with heat or bad weather, and ample time to migrate if necessary.”

Under the Objectivist viewpoint, alternative energy companies should sink or swim without any assistance from public funding. “If someone has a great idea for a new method of producing of energy, great – let them prove it in the free market,” continues Epstein. “If someone wants to make himself feel good by pretending that he is averting an apocalypse by using unattractive light bulbs, throwing away his clothes dryer, driving an overpriced car, buying carbon offsets from Al Gore, or spending a fortune on solar panels in a free country, he has a right to do so. But he has no right to demand that the government compel others to sacrifice for his unproven claims of doom.”

14 Nov 2007

The ‘God that Failed’ is Dead, Now What?

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Slavoj Žižek, in the London Review of Books, contemplates the peculiar position of today’s Left after the collapse of Communism.

One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible. Marx compared it to a vampire, and one of the salient points of comparison now appears to be that vampires always rise up again after being stabbed to death. Even Mao’s attempt, in the Cultural Revolution, to wipe out the traces of capitalism, ended up in its triumphant return.

Today’s Left reacts in a wide variety of ways to the hegemony of global capitalism and its political supplement, liberal democracy. …

The response of some critics on the postmodern Left to this predicament is to call for a new politics of resistance. Those who still insist on fighting state power, let alone seizing it, are accused of remaining stuck within the ‘old paradigm’: the task today, their critics say, is to resist state power by withdrawing from its terrain and creating new spaces outside its control. This is, of course, the obverse of accepting the triumph of capitalism. The politics of resistance is nothing but the moralising supplement to a Third Way Left.

Simon Critchley’s recent book, Infinitely Demanding, is an almost perfect embodiment of this position. For Critchley, the liberal-democratic state is here to stay. Attempts to abolish the state failed miserably; consequently, the new politics has to be located at a distance from it: anti-war movements, ecological organisations, groups protesting against racist or sexist abuses, and other forms of local self-organisation. It must be a politics of resistance to the state, of bombarding the state with impossible demands, of denouncing the limitations of state mechanisms. The main argument for conducting the politics of resistance at a distance from the state hinges on the ethical dimension of the ‘infinitely demanding’ call for justice: no state can heed this call, since its ultimate goal is the ‘real-political’ one of ensuring its own reproduction (its economic growth, public safety, etc). ‘Of course,’ Critchley writes,

    history is habitually written by the people with the guns and sticks and one cannot expect to defeat them with mocking satire and feather dusters. Yet, as the history of ultra-leftist active nihilism eloquently shows, one is lost the moment one picks up the guns and sticks. Anarchic political resistance should not seek to mimic and mirror the archic violent sovereignty it opposes.

So what should, say, the US Democrats do? Stop competing for state power and withdraw to the interstices of the state, leaving state power to the Republicans and start a campaign of anarchic resistance to it? And what would Critchley do if he were facing an adversary like Hitler? Surely in such a case one should ‘mimic and mirror the archic violent sovereignty’ one opposes? Shouldn’t the Left draw a distinction between the circumstances in which one would resort to violence in confronting the state, and those in which all one can and should do is use ‘mocking satire and feather dusters’? The ambiguity of Critchley’s position resides in a strange non sequitur: if the state is here to stay, if it is impossible to abolish it (or capitalism), why retreat from it? Why not act with(in) the state? Why not accept the basic premise of the Third Way? Why limit oneself to a politics which, as Critchley puts it, ‘calls the state into question and calls the established order to account, not in order to do away with the state, desirable though that might well be in some utopian sense, but in order to better it or attenuate its malicious effect’?

These words simply demonstrate that today’s liberal-democratic state and the dream of an ‘infinitely demanding’ anarchic politics exist in a relationship of mutual parasitism: anarchic agents do the ethical thinking, and the state does the work of running and regulating society. Critchley’s anarchic ethico-political agent acts like a superego, comfortably bombarding the state with demands; and the more the state tries to satisfy these demands, the more guilty it is seen to be. In compliance with this logic, the anarchic agents focus their protest not on open dictatorships, but on the hypocrisy of liberal democracies, who are accused of betraying their own professed principles. …

The big demonstrations in London and Washington against the US attack on Iraq a few years ago offer an exemplary case of this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protesters saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimise it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!’

The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfill. Since they know that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude presents no problem for those in power: ‘So wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where we have to make do with what is possible.’ The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse.

17 Aug 2007

Who is Mencius Moldbug?

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Michael Blowhard knows, and spills the beans, thusly:

Having made a score in a recent dot-com boom — though “I only made out like a thief, not like a bandit,” he writes — he has been treating himself to a sabbatical, reading, thinking, and writing. He confesses that his monthly book bill is around $500.

Mencius Moldbug lives in San Francisco, where he is temporarily retired from the software industry. His principal occupations are feeding ravens, reading old books, and working on his programming language, which will be done any year now.

There follows the Moldbug political manifesto, a piece of intellectual provocation certainly worth a read.

A sample:

The basic idea of formalism is just that the main problem in human affairs is violence. The goal is to design a way for humans to interact, on a planet of remarkably limited size, without violence. …

The key is to look at this not as a moral problem, but as an engineering problem. Any solution that solves the problem is acceptable. Any solution that does not solve the problem is not acceptable. …

A further difficulty is that the definition of “violence” isn’t so obvious. If I gently relieve you of your wallet, and you chase after me with your Glock and make me beg to be allowed to give it back, which of us is being violent? Suppose I say, well, it was your wallet – but it’s my wallet now?

This suggests, at the very least, that we need a rule that tells us whose wallet is whose. Violence, then, is anything that breaks the rule, or replaces it with a different rule. If the rule is clear and everyone follows it, there is no violence.

In other words, violence equals conflict plus uncertainty. While there are wallets in the world, conflict will exist. But if we can eliminate uncertainty – if there is an unambiguous, unbreakable rule that tells us, in advance, who gets the wallet – I have no reason to sneak my hand into your pocket, and you have no reason to run after me shooting wildly into the air. Neither of our actions, by definition, can affect the outcome of the conflict.

And so on.

17 Aug 2007

Against Political Freedom

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Mencius Moldbug has penned a witty and learned essay arguing against not only democracy, but political freedom (!)

It is always a great pleasure personal pleasure for me to run into a blogger both so intelligent and so admirably unconventional in his views.

In my ideal… state, there is no political freedom because there is no politics. Perhaps the government has a comment box where you can express your opinion. Perhaps it does customer surveys and even polls. But there is no organization and no reason to organize, because no combination of residents can influence government policy by coercion.

And precisely because of this stability, you can think, say, or write whatever you want. Because the state has no reason to care. Your freedom of thought, speech, and expression is no longer a political freedom. It is only a personal freedom.

Read the whole thing.

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Hat tip and special thanks to Tiomoid of Angle.

13 Aug 2007

Alles Muss Anders Sein!

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At American Thinker, James Lewis has an essay on the fundamental similarity of all those noxious and irrational revolutionary ideologies spawned in the 19th century by representatives of the new class of cafe intellectual bohemians, what Russell Kirk liked to refer to as “spoiled priests.”

Everything must be different!” or “Alles muss anders sein!” was a slogan of the Nazi Party. It is also the heart’s desire of every Leftist since Karl Marx. Nazism was a deeply revolutionary creed, a fact that is always denied by the Left; but it’s true.

Read the whole thing.

26 Dec 2006

Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (Cartoon version)

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General Motors and Look Magazine long ago published a cartoon version of Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, doubtless intended to counteract the efforts of the organized international Communist conspiracy to corrupt the thinking of the American workman.

Hat tip to David C. Larkin.

07 Sep 2006

Kolakowski on Marxism

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Tony Judt reviews Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism, My Correct Views on Everything, and Karl Marx ou l’esprit du monde in the New York Review of Books.

(Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism) ends with an essay on “Developments in Marxism Since Stalin’s Death,” in which Kolakowski passes briefly over his own “revisionist” past before going on to record in a tone of almost unremitting contempt the passing fashions of the age, from the higher foolishness of Sartre’s Critique de la raison dialectique and its “superfluous neologisms” to Mao Zedong, his “peasant Marxism,” and its irresponsible Western admirers. Readers of this section are forewarned in the original preface to the third volume of the work: while recognizing that the material addressed in the last chapter “could be expanded into a further volume,” the author concludes, “I am not convinced that the subject is intrinsically worthy of treatment at such length.” It is perhaps worth recording here that whereas the first two parts of Main Currents appeared in France in 1987, this third and final volume of Kolakowski’s masterwork has still not been published there.

It is quite impossible to convey in a short review the astonishing range of Kolakowski’s history of Marxist doctrine. It will surely not be superseded: Who will ever again know—or care—enough to go back over this ground in such detail and with such analytical sophistication? Main Currents of Marxism is not a history of socialism; its author pays only passing attention to political contexts or social organizations. It is unashamedly a narrative of ideas, a sort of bildungsroman of the rise and fall of a once-mighty family of theory and theorists, related in skeptical, disabused old age by one of its last surviving children.

Kolakowski’s thesis, driven through 1,200 pages of exposition, is straightforward and unambiguous. Marxism, in his view, should be taken seriously: not for its propositions about class struggle (which were sometimes true but never news); nor for its promise of the inevitable collapse of capitalism and a proletarian-led transition to socialism (which failed entirely as prediction); but because Marxism delivered a unique —and truly original—blend of promethean Romantic illusion and uncompromising historical determinism.

The attraction of Marxism thus understood is obvious. It offered an explanation of how the world works—the economic analysis of capitalism and of social class relations. It proposed a way in which the world ought to work—an ethics of human relations as suggested in Marx’s youthful, idealistic speculations (and in György Lukács’s interpretation of him, with which Kolakowski, for all his disdain for Lukács’s own compromised career, largely concurs). And it announced incontrovertible grounds for believing that things will work that way in the future, thanks to a set of assertions about historical necessity derived by Marx’s Russian disciples from his (and Engels’s) own writings. This combination of economic description, moral prescription, and political prediction proved intensely seductive—and serviceable. As Kolakowski has observed, Marx is still worth reading—if only to help us understand the sheer versatility of his theories when invoked by others to justify the political systems to which they gave rise…

Main Currents of Marxism is not the only first-rate account of Marxism, though it is by far the most ambitious. What distinguishes it is Kolakowski’s Polish perspective. This probably explains the emphasis in his account on Marxism as an eschatology —”a modern variant of apocalyptic expectations which have been continuous in European history.” And it licenses an uncompromisingly moral, even religious reading of twentieth-century history:

The Devil is part of our experience. Our generation has seen enough of it for the message to be taken extremely seriously. Evil, I contend, is not contingent, it is not the absence, or deformation, or the subversion of virtue (or whatever else we may think of as its opposite), but a stubborn and unredeemable fact.
No Western commentator on Marxism, however critical, ever wrote like that….

This cynical application of dialectics to the twisting of minds and the breaking of bodies was usually lost on Western scholars of Marxism, absorbed in the contemplation of past ideals or future prospects and unmoved by inconvenient news from the Soviet present, particularly when relayed by victims or witnesses. His encounters with such people doubtless explain Kolakowski’s caustic disdain for much of “Western” Marxism and its progressive acolytes:

One of the causes of the popularity of Marxism among educated people was the fact that in its simple form it was very easy; even [sic] Sartre noticed that Marxists are lazy….[Marxism was] an instrument that made it possible to master all of history and economics without actually having to study either.

Hat tip to David Larkin.

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